2014: The year without Rihanna

This year we saw Beyonce and Taylor Swift wherever we looked. But Rihanna's absence felt like a statement in itself

Published December 26, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

      (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
(Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

2014 has been the year Rihanna took a break from pop music.

It's notable mostly because the singer herself has made it notable: Rihanna produced seven studio albums in as many years. Her debut, “Music From The Sun,” came out in 2005, when the singer was just 17; six more albums followed suit, up until November 2012, when Rihanna released “Unapologetic.” Ever since then, gossip sites are eager to report that Rihanna has been on the verge of releasing her eighth, "R8." But as of yet, no album. She's languishing at 47th on the Billboard top 100—hardly a failure, but definitely not at the prominence she developed after the single "Umbrella," her biggest hit to date. 2014 belonged to other artists. Rihanna yielded the floor—she even, for six months or so, deactivated her Instagram account. Pop music had to go on without her.

Out of earshot does not mean out of mind, though. Her singles from 2013—“Stay,” “The Monster,” with Eminem, and “Pour It Up,” among others—are still in regular radio play. The last single from “Unapologetic,” “Jump,” was released in January of this year, as was her collaboration with Shakira for that artist’s single “Can’t Remember To Forget You.” Rihanna’s appearances at the Met Gala, the CFDA Fashion Awards, and Paris Fashion Week were red-carpet rag must-covers. She toured briefly with Eminem in August for the Monster Tour, including an unannounced appearance at Lollapallooza in Chicago.

And she was the implied subject of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond The Lights,” a romance about the inner life of a pop star—and how she might find romance and some kind of self-actualization in an environment that consistently denies her right to them. "Beyond The Lights" is separate enough from Rihanna's life that there's some plausible deniability—the film's Noni is, like Rihanna, young, black, and accented, but she's also biracial, British, and nearly friendless. But the vulnerability of Prince-Bythewood's starlet living an empty life is really the connecting thread between the fictional Noni and real-life Rihanna. The film itself is thoughtful; and the fact that the film exists at all is even more thought-provoking. Because there's something about Rihanna. There's space for a film about her perceived inner life in a way there isn't about other pop stars—not nearly with the same raw vulnerability.

The vast majority of the time—especially for the female artists in the business—pop music is a vast, ever-shifting field of signifiers and innuendos. The success of a pop star is often more about posture than talent; a single is a product and its performer is its brand. And without Rihanna—the lucrative public persona of Robyn Fenty—pop music feels emptier. RiRi occupies a unique, even irreplaceable place in today’s pop music scene.

Especially after "Beyond The Lights," I was moved to explore Rihanna's public persona, and how it compares to other artists. What I've noticed is that her absence from 2014 has said a great deal with mere silence.

2014 has been a year in pop music dominated by single female acts. There are dudes here and there—Ed Sheeran, John Legend, One Direction—but there are just a ton of solo female acts. This year has seen newcomers Lorde and Charli XCX come to prominence in the U.S.; it's witnessed the release of Taylor Swift’s market-shaking “1989,” and Ariana Grande’s hit singles “Problem,” “Bang Bang,” and “Break Free.” All of these women seem to be taking up market space that Rihanna left available. Indeed, Nicki Minaj not only released a new album in 2014 but also snagged Rihanna's longtime collaborator and sometime-lover Drake for her video "Anaconda."

But the starlets replacing Rihanna feel much flimsier, as far as public personas go. Apparently, ever since the music industry's sordid tales of drugs, debauchery, and dissipation throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s, the pop stars of the 21st century are single-minded professionals. The starlets of today exude more rational decisionmaking than tortured creative process, and it comes through in whatever image they're producing for the public.

This became especially apparent to me a couple weeks ago, when I wrote about the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, the two bona fide pop stars performing on the runway, were curiously devoid of their sexuality, I observed, as was the majority of the proceedings. Both singers made their name appealing to a younger crowd, so it would make some sense that they're sexuality would be tamped down. But it was the Victoria's Secret show, with thongs and bustiers in every corner of the room—and both Swift and Grande were wearing lingerie, thrusting and gyrating, singing about passion and heartbreak. It all fell terribly flat—plastic and mechanized, clearly the products of an agreed-upon persona performed in an agreed-upon manner.

Rihanna's different. She's either very, very good at minimizing the artifice of being a celebrity, or she's way too vulnerable for the camera. Sometimes, paradoxically, she's both. And it makes her a far more winsome public figure—one that captures the imagination so much people make movies about her, at the tender age of 26.

A great deal of that stems from her tumultuous relationship with Chris Brown—which propelled not just her private life but her sex life into the stuff of watercooler gossip. The most talked-about incident ended with a police image of Rihanna's battered face plastered all over the internet, in 2009; subsequent songs have dealt explicitly with her relationship with him, one that made her both a victim and a survivor in one fell swoop. Her subsequent break-up and then make-up with Brown—during a period of time where she was also romantically connected with frequent collaborator Drake—is as much the stuff of Rihanna’s legend as her incredible success is.

And it shows up, with naked clarity, in her music. Rihanna's songs are not, typically, vocally challenging: She doesn't have the range of either Beyoncé or even tiny little Ariana Grande. She makes up for it with sultry, trademark timbre—a throaty alto capable of taking on multiple shades of emotion and producing the most coveted hooks in the business. "Stay," her most recent hit, is in a limited range, but hits with the force of any torch song.

The effect is one of a woman who can feel, which stands out in the world of today's pop music. And she stands out as one who can feel and desire to have sex, which feels nothing short of revolutionary.

To wit: In November she graced the cover of Elle, showcasing some couture and her numerous tattoos. Despite a cover shoot of nine photos, the magazine didn’t apparently get to interview her at all: The Q&A with the star is about a dozen questions with nearly monosyllabic answers. And each one opens up an array of fascinating implications; at the very least, part of Rihanna’s game is to keep her audience guessing. When asked “What’s the sexiest thing a man has ever said to you?” she replies: “Any man that tells me what to do is sexy!” When asked what she wants for Christmas: “A big, trimmed ****!” What do people not undersand about her? “I’m shy.” And, crucially: “If you weren’t a singer, what would you be?” “A wife.” Rihanna is both sexually available and unexpectedly traditional—and unlike the gyrations of Miley Cyrus, who falls into a similar category, Rihanna wields a lot more mystique.

And as 2014 is defined, to some degree, by her absence, it’s easier to describe Rihanna’s expression of self by what it’s not: Ever since 2009’s “Good Girl Gone Bad,” Rihanna does not play for youthful innocence, like Grande, Lorde, or even (most of the time) Swift. But unlike Minaj’s aggressive, dismissive, politicized sexuality in “Anaconda,” Rihanna’s is far more sweetly seductive and available.

Indeed, the pop star that Rihanna most resembles is the queen herself, Beyoncé, who wields a similar combination of unabashed sexuality coupled with an appreciation for traditional gender roles. But there’s one crucial difference: Bey’s a married woman, and has been with partner Jay-Z since 2000, when she was 19. Her entire solo career has been under the aegis of her relationship with Jay-Z. Rihanna’s 26 and unattached. Beyoncé reclaimed being a single lady, but Rihanna is one.

On the occasion of Rihanna’s Instagram account’s reactivation (look, it was a big deal), writers Claire Lobenfeld and Judnick Maynard discussed the star and what makes her so captivating at Wondering Sound. It’s a brilliant, multifaceted analysis. Maynard writes: “Her nudity and raunchiness always seem to come from a place of body confidence… a huge part of Rihanna’s sexuality is the confidence she exudes about her naked body.” Lobenfeld responds that Rihanna’s songs about sadomasochistic sex are an expression of how “razor sharp” her awareness of the balance of power is in sex; “She is wielding a ton of power to demand what she wants and there are no apologies for it.” Rihanna puts the word “power” in the oft-repeated feminist canard of “empowerment”—and it’s a power that she draws on from her body, warts and all.

Being single and sexual is one of the most provocative, tenuous positions a straight woman can occupy in this world—one that says, boldly, that man or a marriage is not required to satisfy her, but she isn’t an old maid, either. Neither a prude nor a slut; neither a virgin nor a whore. Rihanna is in the gray area between the two reductive poles, and she steadfastly refuses to offer evidence in either direction.

Further analysis of Rihanna indicates that so much of her identity is that she cannot be easily pigeonholed. She defies labels—her music defies clear categorization; she acts, sings, dances, and models. She exists in the space between victim and survivor, too—“Stay,” “We Found Love,” and even the fact that she got back together with Chris Brown indicate intense emotion around the first, violent iteration of that relationship. Her relationship with Drake defies easy labels, too; no one, including Drake, really knows what it is, let alone what to call it.

And as Maynard observes, Rihanna is somewhere between being foreign and being American, too. She’s not totally buying into the toxic American doublespeak around sex—“the hypocrisy of making sex taboo but also using sex to sell everything”—but she’s not the island-culture wife of her Elle interview, either, where, as Maynard explains, sex is not shameful, just private, and women hold the majority of the power in the family.

Rihanna is a phenomenon—a workhorse who has become synonymous with pop music, a singer whose hooks are the most coveted commodities in the business. And her self-assured fluidity is both the mark of her success and the likely cause of much of it. Where other pop stars find a niche and stick to it—Kesha and Miley, the bad girls, Taylor and Selena Gomez, the good girls—Rihanna is loyal to her own process of becoming. She offers her audience the breadth of her experience, which again invokes Madonna, out of an intuitive understanding of what fans want from celebrity. It’s vulnerability and inspiration; grit and grace. Her image makes press almost superfluous—she doesn’t need more than a short printed Q&A with Elle. She communicates to her public with her Instagram and Twitter; with her music and her concerts. She can establish that direct connection because something real is coming through—or, I suppose, because she is very good at pretending.

It’s been a crucial age for Rihanna and for us, her audience. As she’s grown up, from an ingénue to a seasoned performer, we have, too—the years from 2005 to 2014 were formative not just for Milennials like her but for anyone plugged into technology and media. She’s made her mark on this changing era—younger artists like Lorde and Charli XCX are aping some of her fluidity, some of her connection. Her legacy is already being processed with “Beyond The Lights,” a love letter to her spirit, a wish for her to be happy. Hopefully “R8” is coming sooner rather than later. Until then, good riddance, 2014: A year without Rihanna is not much of a year at all.

By Sonia Saraiya

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